Portraying a well-known and respected historical figure is often a taunting task for any actor, especially a beloved literary figure who helped launch the detective and sci-fi genres. But capturing the person’s physical and emotional tendencies while balancing an intense, fictionalized story is an even more taunting task. John Cusack, who plays famed 19th century Gothic poet Edgar Allan Poe in the new crime thriller ‘The Raven,’ directed by James McTeigue, perfectly balances the writer’s mysterious life within an intriguing tale created by the filmmaker.
‘The Raven’ follows Baltimore Detective Emmett Fields (played by Luke Evans) who is put in charge of investigating and apprehending a newly surfaced serial killer. When he realizes the murders are based on fictional killings described in stories written by social outcast Edgar Allan Poe in the local newspaper, the detective quickly seeks the poet’s creativity to capture the assailant.
Meanwhile, Edgar secretly becomes engaged to Emily Hamilton (portrayed by Alive Eve). Emily is the daughter of a local businessman, Captain Charles Hamilton (played by Brendan Gleeson), who doesn’t like Edgar. However, after the killer kidnaps Emily, Charles is willing to put his differences with Edgar aside to help search for his daughter.
Cusack generously took the time to discuss ‘The Raven’ recently during a roundtable interview at New York City’s The Vault at Pfaff bar. The actor spoke about, among other things, the challenges of playing such a damaged character, and what some of the most surprising things he learned about Poe while researching for his role were.
Question (Q): If Poe were still alive today, what questions would you ask him?
John Cusack (JC): I don’t know if I’d ask him anything, because it’s all there in the writing. I don’t know if you’d get a straight answer from him anyway. (laughs) It’s dependent on where you met him. If you met him at his first cocktail, or if you met him when he was hung over.
It would depend on his mood. He would be overcome by moods, and feel things pretty passionately. He didn’t have a lot of control over his emotions. He seemed to be a pretty erratic guy.
But sometimes he would be really cordial and really polite, and a real gentleman. Then something would happen, and all of a sudden, he would be furious about something. He wasn’t an easy person to deal with.
Q: Would you say he’s the most damaged character you’ve ever played?
JC: Uhhh…yeah. (laughs) Probably.
Q: What kind of challenges did that present?
JC: Well, I think he was a genius. Most people aren’t really geniuses. They don’t have the insight he had. He had a pretty serious appetite for self-destruction, for sure.
I think he also romanced the abyss that hadn’t really been done before. Not many people have the worst nightmare that you can think of. People would then say, wake up. He was like, oh great, go in deeper.
There’s not many people like that, like William Burroughs. There are people who do that, but not many who want to talk about the romance of the abyss, or the attraction of destruction. Poe’s the godfather of goth, for sure. He did the detective genre, and science-fiction and burlesque.
Q: You wanted to make your character as complex as possible. What was the process to get like that, and then to get out of that mindset?
JC: I would sort of go all in, and immerse myself in it, and try to find a way out. I knew I got to finish it, so it was either go goth or go home.
He as a mixture of things, too. He wasn’t all dark; he was funny and witty. His mind was real clear at times.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Poe while doing research on him?
JC: I had forgotten that he actually invented (several genres), and you can see the seeds of influence in so many places and genres and cultures. You could see the origins of him branch out in so many directions, I had forgotten that. When you really look into it, you can sense it.
Q: Like what specifically?
JC: Like he created forensics and the detective genres before ‘Sherlock Holmes.’ He also did journalistic hoaxes. He would do these stories that didn’t happen, like these balloons that would go into outer space, kind of like a ‘War of the Worlds’ kind of thing. He would put them out there, and they would be pranks.
He would also do satires of other people’s stuff, kind of like burlesque. He obviously started the horror genre, the Gothic horror genre.
He did other styles, too. He did first-person confessionals. He made a romantic version of destruction, and talked about death and beauty. He was completely brazen.
This whole tradition of writers telling the world they’re the best, better than anyone else, they’re destructively putting it all out there. He couldn’t believe in a God, because his whole being was revolted to the idea that there was anything in the universe superior to himself. He said that in print, when it was really difficult to print things. (laughs)
It’s not like an off-handed remark, that I say it in an interview, and it gets out there. He was crazy, so provocative and nuts.
Q: People take Poe very, very seriously. How do you think people who take him so seriously are going to react to James McTeigue’s action hero?
JC: I think they’ll like it, at least some of them. Roger Corman certainly took the burlesque, satirical version side of him, and turned them into these camp movies in the ’60s. This takes his terror much more seriously.
But there is an element of burlesque and mashing of genres that goes into Poe’s stuff, which I thought was cool. There could be a straight biopic that’s a good version of him, too. I thought this was cool.
Q: Since you’re playing a fictionalized version of a real person, how much do you have to tread the lines, and not go too far, but still make it an interesting story?
JC: I don’t think you’re really bound by it. I think this is a dream about Poe. It’s based on what his stuff feels like, and what he wrote.
We started rewriting ‘The Raven’ poem in the middle of it. But it was inspired by what Poe evoked. So this was our best version about a dream about Poe. Other people can make theirs, too.
Q: Which stories were you most looking forward to seeing on the big screen?
JC: I think ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’ I thought that was hard-core. He’d laugh about ‘Saw,’ he’d say “I’ll show you ‘Saw.'” (laughs)
I always liked the mystical side of his stuff, like the undead and the people torn with death. I like the supernatural in Poe. I like ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’
Q: Has playing with the supernatural inspired you to produce or make any supernatural films?
JC: Well, I made a Stephen King film, ‘1408,’ I really liked that. I think (screenwriter-novelist-producer) Rod Sterling is a direct descendant of Poe. I think Stephen King would feel a great allegiance to Poe. I’ve done a couple others. ‘Identity’ had sort of a meta vibe.
Written by: Karen Benardello